If someone asked you what is the single, most important factor in the life of our Protestant Reformed Churches which has served to keep us what we were from our beginning and which still distinguishes us as a denomination today, what would you answer?
Some would undoubtedly answer: our insistence upon doctrine, the doctrine of our Reformed confessions. And undoubtedly this doctrinal emphasis has played and still does play a significant part in the stance of our churches—especially in an age which is averse to sound doctrine, and, in fact, averse to any doctrinal emphasis whatsoever. For doctrine, after all, is nothing other than the teachings of the Word of God; and what the Word of God teaches constitutes the content of saving faith. Faith has as its content all things promised us in the gospel and briefly comprehended in the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Moreover, Christian life without doctrine, practice without principle, is like a ship without a rudder, or like a skyscraper without a foundation. Reformed doctrine is without doubt of great importance, and has undoubtedly been of great importance during the fifty years of our history which we thankfully commemorate this year. Well may we thank our faithful covenant God that He has given us pastors and teachers who instructed us and our children diligently in the truths of our Reformed creeds. The thousands of sermons in which we were systematically instructed in the truth according to our Heidelberg Catechism and the thousands of hours of catechism classes are so many thousands of reasons for thanksgiving—not to men, but to our God!
Some might probably answer: the most important factor is the readiness of our churches to rise to the defense of the faith and to oppose militantly every departure from and attack upon the Reformed faith. In other words, they would say that our readiness to engage in apologetics and polemics was the key factor throughout these fifty years. Now no Reformed man in his right mind would ever minimize the importance of defending the faith and of warding off every error repugnant thereto. It is simply a matter of record that a Reformed church which refuses to stand fast in the defense of the faith of the gospel and which refuses to warn against and to ward off heresies is not worthy of the name Reformed. Just read our Church Order and our Formula of Subscription, and you will soon discover this. Besides, the whole record of church history supports this claim. And above all, how often the Scriptures emphasize this! True, there have been those who have pointed to this militant stance of our churches and who have then claimed that our Protestant Reformed Churches live by reaction, live by negatives. But those who make this claim either do not know what they are talking about, or they are deliberately lying; and neither of these is a happy state in which to be. The fact of the matter is that no church can live by negatives; and the very fact of our fifty years’ existence obviously gives the lie to this suggestion of our detractors.
Nevertheless, however important the above factors may have been in our history and still are today, I would not point to either one of them as the chief factor.
What, then, is, by God’s grace, the strength of our churches in my opinion?
The preaching of the Word!
Understand, there is no disjunction between doctrinal emphasis and the preaching of the Word. Nor is there a disjunction between the preaching of the Word and the defense of the faith. Properly conceived, there is perfect harmony between these three; in fact, they may never be disjointed. Moreover, sound and pure preaching of the Word will undoubtedly bear fruit in that the people of God become well-founded in doctrine. And it will bear fruit, too, in that we and our children become equipped not only to discern and to guard against false doctrine, but also to eschew error and to love with all our heart the truth.
And yet it is the preaching that constitutes the spiritual strength of our churches. And if ever we lose that preaching, it will be the end of our churches and the end of our right of existence as a communion of Protestant Reformed Churches.
This is, of course, a patent truth according to our confessions. Our Belgic Confession singles out the preaching of the Word as the first mark by which the true church may be discerned. Our Heidelberg Catechism, while it does not elaborate on the subject of preaching, nevertheless speaks of it as the means whereby the Holy Spirit works and strengthens faith. And even our Canons of Dordrecht more than once emphasize the importance of the preaching of the Word.
But this is also a matter of experience.
I remember well that in the days of my youth this was always a source of wonderment to me. I never quite believed it: I thought that if you could go out and convince people by stringent argument and clear proof from Scripture of the rightness of our doctrinal position, you would win them and they would be compelled to join our Protestant Reformed communion. If .you could only go out and show people, say, that the Three Points were all wrong and that the doctrine of the well-meant offer is essentially Arminian, they would have to be convinced and would have to join the fray against these false doctrines. And indeed, such instruction is necessary and is part of the calling of the church. But I was always a little surprised when my father would return from a home missions tour in the earlier years of our history and say, “After all, it’s not the lectures, not the exposition of doctrine, not the exposing of the errors of common grace—however important these may be—which attracts people to our churches. But it is the preaching! When God’s people hear the preaching of the Word in which the God of our salvation is central, in which there are sounded the clear notes of sovereign grace and of God’s everlasting and faithful covenant, then their hearts are warmed and they realize that they have been missing something which they sorely need and desire; and then they are attracted to our churches.” And in later years I learned to know this by experience in my own ministry.
Let us remember, too, that this is true not only on the mission field, but in the established congregation as well. The preaching of the Word is central! It is all-important. It is the chief thing. Take it away, and the church cannot survive. Corrupt it, and the church will soon become corrupt and decadent. Remove its sharp edges and’ dull its ringing tones, and a congregation will become spiritually lethargic and somnolent.
Understand, I am not thinking of preaching in general, of much that passes for preaching today. I meanproper preaching, that is, the authoritative proclamation of the Word of God according to the Scriptures and in the service of the Word of Christ.
Such preaching is, in the first place, emphatically preaching of the WORD, and that, too, according to the Scriptures. This is really the crux of the matter. Any preaching that is worth its salt must be preaching ofthe Word of God. Preaching that departs from this key characteristic has been bastardized.
This means, secondly, that proper preaching isexegetical. It expounds and proclaims the Word of God according to the Scriptures. The preacher must say, “Thus saith the Lord!” But woe unto him if he says, “Thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord has not spoken! Woe unto him if he, so to speak, puts words in the Lord’s mouth! And therefore, the preacher is bound to the Scriptures throughout. He must unfold those Scriptures to God’s people. He must proclaim to them the gospel of grace, the gospel of the promise, the riches of salvation, sin and grace, faith and repentance, atonement and justification, regeneration and calling, sanctification and perseverance, eternal life and glory, woe and weal, heaven and hell, blessing and cursing—all according to the Scriptures, and that, too, the Scriptures as conveyed on the wings of a particular text.
In the third place, this implies that preaching must bespecific. It must be sharp! It must never engage in generalities. And let me add: if the preacher sticks to his text and makes it his purpose to set forth all the riches, all the meaning and significance of his text, his preaching will be specific. But I mean, too, that the preaching itself, the proclaiming of the Word, must besharp! In this respect there must be a certain amount of “over-kill” in the preaching. Preaching must not suffer from the “blahs.” It must be calculated to jolt people, to make them listen, to pay attention, to make them hang on every word!
Why is this?
Is it because the keen exegesis, the clear organization; the compelling logic, the ringing oratory of the preacher, or his persuasive conversational approach—is it because these must do the work of saving God’s people and building His church?
We know better.
No, it is because the preaching of the Word is the cutting-edge of the Spirit of Christ, because it pleases God to call His people and to gather His church through preaching that is exclusively and emphatically preaching of HIS WORD. And all the exegesis, the logic, the clarity of organization, the simplicity of explaining deep and rich truths, the talents of speech—all these must be subservient to this purpose of God through the Spirit of Christ.
Hence, in the first place, PREACH, preacher! Preach!
And that means: WORK, preacher, work! Work with the Scriptures. Work incessantly. Let nothing deter you from this aspect of your ministry. If you fail to devote your energies to this, if your exegetical labors and your sermon preparation begin to get second or third place in your pastoral life, if you “pull one out of the file” or “turn the pile over” when you move to a new congregation, you are doing despite to the Word of God which you are called to preach. You could better resign from the ministry. God hates a lazy preacher!
And it means, too, that you must constantly examine your own preaching critically. A preacher ought to be his own severest critic. It is a very easy and natural course for preaching to become dull, to become humdrum. To prevent this requires constant vigilance and conscious effort on the part of the preacher. And it requires consecration and prayer and listening to the Word of God.
And consistories and congregations: expect and demand and insist upon this kind of preaching! If there is anything in the church that you must guard zealously, anything that is indispensable in the life of the church, anything that has been for fifty years and will be in the future of the utmost importance for the spiritual health of our churches, it is the preaching of the Word!